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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

Implementing the Program Management Improvement Accountability Act

March 17, 2017

Summary from March 17, 2017 EOM Panel Meeting


Legislation passed in December 2016 requires federal agencies to develop greater project and program management capacity. A NAPA Study Panel prepared a report in 2015 on improving project and program management in federal agencies, which informed the development of that legislation.

Now that the legislation has passed, how will it be implemented? OMB is assessing the “lay of the land” and what elements need to be considered to effectively implement this legislation in a way that it is not just another compliance exercise. The panel discussed issues such as:

How can the implementation of this legislation be framed in order to actually help program managers better deliver results? How will these legislative requirements fit into the broader framework of related existing requirements around performance management, contract management, enterprise risk management, IT management, etc.?

Background Reading


Dan Chenok, IBM Center for The Business of Government (member of NAPA Report Study Panel)
Dustin Brown, Office of Performance and Personnel Management, OMB
Adam Lipton, Office of Performance and Personnel Management, OMB
Christopher Rahaim, Office of Federal Procurement Policy, OMB
Greg Giddens, Department of Veterans Affairs (current federal executive program manager)
Jim Williams, Schambach & Williams Consulting (former federal executive program manager)

Key Take-Aways

The 2015 NAPA report discussed the distinctions between “program” and “project” management. It posited that they lie on a continuum, where “projects” have a clear beginning, middle, and end (such as a road construction project) and that “programs” are often a longer term collection of projects (such as the Apollo Moon program).

The authors note that capital-intensive agencies, such as Defense, Energy, and NASA, have a tradition of program and project management but that this is not a widespread culture or skill set across other agencies, many of which undertake capital-intensive initiatives such as VA hospital construction and DHS initiatives.

The New Law

The new law requires OMB and federal agencies to:

  • Create or update an existing job series and career paths for program managers.
  • Develop a standards-based model of general principles for program management.
    • Currently only about 16 percent of government program managers are certified.
  • Designate a senior accountable official in each agency/ Program Management Improvement Officer.
  • Establish an interagency council – Program Management Policy Council (chaired by OMB’s Deputy Director for Management) comprised of OMB representatives and agency Program Management Improvement Officers (who tend to currently be in either the acquisition or IT offices).
  • Plan for Implementation.
    • OMB is charged with developing implementation guidance for agencies by December 2017.

The goal is to integrate these new requirements with existing statutory and administrative management requirements already in place and not create a new, separate stovepipe of requirements for this new law, off to the side.

Challenges in Drafting Guidance

One of the interesting first challenges will be providing definitions of what constitutes a “program,” and what is “program management,” since the new law does not include definitions. However, other laws do have such definition for “program,” but not in the same context as envisioned in this law.

Another challenge in drafting the guidance is the variety of agencies with different needs and missions. How do you draft governmentwide standards, yet allow agency-level flexibility? If the standards are too specific, agencies will ignore them and this will result in a check-box compliance exercise.

A third challenge will be connecting program managers with other parts of the broader management system. Program management has traditionally been treated as an acquisition function, when in fact it is much broader role, involving: human resources, IT, financial management, mission-delivery functions, potentially other agencies, contractors, the media, and even Congress. The guidance needs to encompass the contributions of these different functions as well, and not be directed solely to program managers.

The Perspective of Program Managers

The key job of a program manager is to manage not just the project but the changes that affect the broader organization that accompany any major program or project. In every agency, you need the right culture and the right elements when undertaking major programs. You need both tech and soft skills to be successful. The key elements of this approach include:

  • Maintaining a consistent governance framework that takes an enterprise view, not just a project-based view valuing program management as a legitimate career path.
    • Typically, once someone becomes a program manager, they can’t go back to being an operational manager.
  • Creating joint accountability among internal/external stakeholders.
    • A key part of the job of an effective program manager is managing stakeholders – few stakeholders work for you, and the key is how you get results from others, along with their dollars to help support!
    • Program managers need to get support from across the organization (and not have them give you their “C” staff, but their “A” staff to help).